Along with many other economists, my view on global warming-associated climate change is that the world is most unlikely to be able to agree and coordinate globally, and then sustain for the centuries required, the growth-denying policies that would be needed if we were to limit human-induced global warming to any material effect beyond the limits that natural economic development will generate automatically via market forces.
Furthermore – again along with many other economists – I consider it very doubtful that, even if we could coordinate on policies that would materially limit climate change, the costs of doing so would be less than the benefits. Adaptation is almost certainly what, in practice, the world will do, almost certainly all it can do, and very probably what it would be economically best to do.
However, when making this case one commonly faces the objection that, regardless of whether adapting to climate change would be economically advantageous, it would be unethical not to make all the efforts we can to prevent or limit climate change. Certainly some adaptation will be required (the argument goes) and perhaps the pessimistic account of humanity’s capacity for global coordination will prove right, but we must at least try. Not even to try would (it is said) be wrong, regardless of the economics.
That is the case I want to counter here. To lay my cards on the table from the start, I believe it to be completely wrong, from the bottom up.
To focus the discussion on the key ethical points, I shall take as given for our purposes here that human-induced climate change will be significant, absent material mitigation, and that adapting to climate change would be economically superior to attempting to prevent or mitigate it.
(I am of course aware that that each of those views is challenged in some quarters, but I don’t want to replay either of those debates here. Instead, let’s focus on the ethical argument that says if there will be significant climate change the economics don’t matter.)
I identify four components to the ethical case for mitigating as much as we can, even if it is economically disadvantageous to do so, namely the claims that:
- Humanity should seek to avoid having a transformative impact on the environment
- It would be wrong to allow the deaths – perhaps even extinctions – of huge numbers of animals and plants
- It is wrong to leave environmental damage for our children to clean up
- The places in the world where adaptation would be most necessary are where people are least able to adapt
Let us take these in turn. First the claim that humans should seek to avoid having a transformative impact on the environment. That boat sailed thousands of years ago. Look across the English countryside with its green fields. It’s virtually all a human-induced environment (and none the worse for that). Absent man’s influence it would almost all be trees. Instead we have grass or crops or roads or hedges or stone walls or other human-created environments.
The same is true across that vast bulk of the earth where humans live. The ground is made by us. Similarly, much of the fauna is ours. Think of an enormously abundant large mammal, such as the American bison at its peak of some 30-100 million beasts. Then compare that to the 1.3 billion cattle or 24 billion chickens humans keep for their convenience.
Of the total mass of mammals, some 98 per cent or so are humans or human-used.
Obviously there are huge numbers of bacteria and insects and plankton and other creatures we do not so directly control. But the point remains that the earth – at least on the land – is a human-created environment moulded for our convenience – as is only right and proper. After all, the model attitude humans have adopted to the environment since ancient times was that of the steward of the Garden of Eden. Note that: a garden – a designed environment, not a wilderness.
Next, the question of whether it would be wrong to allow the deaths of huge numbers of plants and animals merely for our convenience. In a world of meat and leather and city-building and anti-biotic medicines the idea there is something unethical about allowing the deaths of large numbers of plants and animals simply for human convenience is a bit strained. But let’s try to spice it up a bit by supposing climate change might lead to extinctions in the wild of many species.
(Obviously adaptation need not mean actual extinctions of any species we can identify and preserve samples or DNA of. That also means objections like “some animal that might go extinct might carry the cure to cancer” never really get off the ground even were they not so trivially countered by “some animal that might go extinct might otherwise have carried and communicated tomorrow’s deadly plague”.)
Mightn’t extinctions in the wild be an important consideration?
Obviously I’m all in favour of avoiding hunting or driving creatures to extinction as a general principle. But I see that in aesthetic terms, as something related to the creatures we humans like (e.g. I have no great sorrow about smallpox becoming extinct in the wild but don’t see why a rhino has any superior fundamental ethical claim to exist over a pox).
More generally, it is a classic policy error to believe one has stronger duties to preserve the things one can see today than to facilitate the things an alternative policy might create. That is well understood when it comes to companies or jobs or competition. We do not believe we should favour existing companies over new companies that might arise tomorrow.
Well, much the same applies to the environment. If the earth heats up by 4 degrees then many species that flourish at today’s temperatures and weather patterns will cease to be best-suited and will die out to be replaced by current species that are better suited or new species that will evolve.
There is no reason at all for us to believe it ethical to favour the interests of today’s creatures over the interests of tomorrow’s other than some creatures being more convenient or interesting or useful for humans.
Next the issue of leaving things to our children. First, our children will be unimaginably wealthier than we are, partly as a result of our innovations and infrastructure investments and capital accumulation. Our children will not be compensating us for our gifts to them other than by making the most of those gifts. Why should we be concerned if, alongside these huge gifts, they have a few challenges?
Perhaps they will never see the tropics as we can, but we shall never see the primordial forests of England as prehistoric man did. Do you feel your forebears let you down?
Last the claim that those that will need to adapt most are those least able to adapt. The idea here is that adaptation will be most required in poorer parts of the world. First we should note that, by the time folk in those “poorer” regions would be adapting, they are actually expected to be richer, per head, than those in today’s “rich” regions. But, at least as importantly, the “adaptation” in question will be over an extended period.
Suppose that, in 150 years’ time, climate change means the tropics have such frequent storms that almost no-one could live there. Why is that a problem? Almost no-one lives in Antarctica or the Sahara today. Is that a problem? If the tropics became uninhabitable overnight, that might require a significant and rapid movement of peoples. But if the great grandchildren of folk that today live in the tropics live instead in Canada or Russia why is that, per se, an ethical issue?
It’s not “worse” living in Canada than in Haiti. It’s merely “different”. (And remember, whilst there might be a debate to be had about the costs of relocating the population of the tropics elsewhere, we are assuming throughout that adaptation is economically superior.)
The earth’s environment is largely human-moulded on land already. Insofar as there are ethical considerations about changes to the environment (and there are indeed many such issues) they concern how changes to the environment reflect human tastes and needs and convenience.
If it is more convenient for humans that we allow significant climate change and adapt to it, there is nothing whatever unethical about our doing precisely that.
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